Entity explains 8 iconic paintings.

You can’t go on that lunch date to the Getty museum and not have your facts ready. Your high school European History knowledge isn’t going to cut it! To know these iconic pieces inside and out, it’s important to understand the meaning behind the brush strokes.

Here are eight of the most iconic paintings in history explained.

1 Girl With a Pearl Earring (1665) – Johannes Vermeer

The girl with turban, Johannes van der Meer. Holland, the Hague. #thegirlwiththepearlearring #11july2014 #maurithuismuseum

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The sight of a girl gazing over her shoulder in front of a dark backdrop is both haunting and erotic to audiences. Vermeer was interested in women’s roles in society as upholders of family and guardians of morality. His paintings were often commissioned by people who wished to depict their status, wealth or power.

Unlike the stillness and a homogeny of his other paintings, “The Girl With a Pearl Earring” reveals a different timbre than the other women he painted. This has led many art historians to believe that this painting was not commissioned, but a product of Vermeer’s own artistic vision. 

The girl featured is rumored to be his daughter. However, some refute this, claiming her facial expression and parted lips display a sexual openness that would likely indicate a different kind of relationship.

2 The Scream (1893) – Edvard Munch

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According to Munch’s website, “The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age – wracked with anxiety and uncertainty.”

Edvard Munch attributed his inspiration for “The Scream” to a roadside walk he took one evening. He looked beyond at the fjord and saw the sun turning the clouds blood red. It was at this moment when he “sensed a scream passing through nature” and was inspired to paint the clouds just as he saw them, with angry red and orange lines.

3 Starry Night (1889) – Vincent Van Gogh

After Van Gogh’s mental deterioration leading up to the mutilation of his ear, he checked himself into Saint-Paul asylum, which became the setting for many of his paintings, including “Starry Night.” In letters by Vincent Van Gogh, he lists the works he finds redeemable among his canon – although “Starry Night” was never mentioned, the painting became the most visible of Vincent Van Gogh’s work.

His work during his time in the asylum reflect his state of mind. Van Gogh suffered from depression, psychotic episodes and delusions, depicted through the intensity of the brush strokes and bright contrasting colors. According to the Museum of Modern Art, “Such a combination of visual contrasts was generated by an artist who found beauty and interest in the night, which, for him, was ‘much more alive and richly colored than the day.'”

4 The Persistence of Memory – Salvador Dali

Popularly known for its melting clocks, this surrealist painting represents the distorted and infinite passage of time in a dream-like state. The clocks featured in the painting were inspired by camembert melting in the sun. In the lower left corner, one can see an orange clock with ants eating away at it, ants being a symbol of decay throughout Dali’s paintings.

According to the Museum of Modern Art, “Dalí self-induced hallucinations in order to access his subconscious while creating art, a process he called the paranoiac-critical method. On the results of this process, he wrote, ‘I am the first to be surprised and often terrified by the images I see appear upon my canvas. I register without choice and with all possible exactitude the dictates of my subconscious, my dreams.'”

5 American Gothic (1930) – Grant Wood

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While it seems that this is a painting of a husband and wife, the woman pictured is actually Wood’s sister and the man is the local dentist in Eldon, Iowa, where the painting was created. 

The idyllic American farm house was a reflection of Wood’s attraction to American Gothic architecture. It mimicked the style of European cathedrals, built cheaply to be at a price affordable to American middle and working class. The American gothic house was viewed with such seriousness even though it was a “knock-off.”

Although many believe the painting to satirize Midwestern culture, the Art Institute of Chicago explains that “Wood intended it to be a positive statement about rural American values, an image of reassurance at a time of great dislocation and disillusionment. The man and woman, in their solid and well-crafted world, with all their strengths and weaknesses, represent survivors.”

6 Campbell s Soup Cans (1962) – Andy Warhol

Campbell’s Soup Cans #NYC #moma #andywalhol #campbellsoupcans #popart

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This piece – which was inspired by Warhol’s 20-year consumption of Campbell’s soup – ushered in the 1960s Pop Art movement in the United States. According to the Museum of Modern Art, each can is “hand-painted, while the fleur de lys pattern ringing each can’s bottom edge is hand-stamped.”

Warhol was inspired by print advertisements to create this iconic painting. Each can is identical, imitating the repetitive nature of ads. You could say that this is a portrait of the modern American commercialism: uniform and banal.

7 Composition VIII (1923) – Vasily Kandinsky

This painting features perfect geometrical shapes scattered and overlapped. The picture is a visualization of music, which was influenced by Kandinsky’s trip to Russia. The loudness of the sounds within the pictures are determined by the boldness of the lines and colors.

The strings are akin to strings on a violin to cello, the triangles are the brass section and the curly lines are wind instruments. In addition, the fluid sounds of music are represented by rigid geometric figures.  According to the Guggenheim Museum, Kandinsku claimed, “The circle is the synthesis of the greatest oppositions. It combines the concentric and the eccentric in a single form and in equilibrium. Of the three primary forms, it points most clearly to the fourth dimension.”

8 Guernica (1927) – Pablo Picasso

The painting depicts bodies sprawled, either dead or alive. A mother on the far left side of the painting holds her dead child; adjacent to her are faces stretched out, mouths wide open in what looks like a wailing cry of pain. “Guernica” is a visual representation of the chaos and misery caused by the bombing of a small Spanish town during a terror bombing exercise by the Luftwaffe during WWII.

The visuals elicit a visceral reaction, described by some as “nationalist art” or an anti-war piece. A quote by Pablo Picasso himself explains his motivations for this painting: “My whole life as an artists has been nothing more than a continuous struggle against reaction and the death of art. In the picture I am painting—which I shall call Guernica –I am expressing my horror of the military caste which is now plundering Spain into an ocean of misery and death.”

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